Experiencing a number of childhood stressors can harm the development of a child's brain and nervous system, leading to life-long health problems and diseases - and even premature death.
A study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine determined that children exposed to six or more "adverse childhood experiences" (ACEs) were at twice the risk of premature death compared to children who had not suffered those experiences. The study was based on questionnaires given to more than 17,000 adults who visited Kaiser Permanente between 1995 and 1997, and looked at the long-term effects of the following ACEs:
- Undergoing verbal or physical abuse
- Having a battered mother and witnessing domestic violence
- Living in a household with substance abuse or mental illness
- Have an incarcerated household member
- Having parents who are separated or divorced
"Overall, 1,539 people died during follow-up," said David W. Brown, D.Sc., the study's lead author and an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "People with six or more ACEs died nearly 20 years earlier on average than those without ACEs. It is also disturbing that two-thirds of study participants - persons who were relatively well off - had at least one of the ACEs."
Children at the highest risk lived to an average age of 60, while those who were low risk lived to nearly 80, according to the study.
"It is important to understand that consequences to childhood trauma can extend over an individual's life," Brown said.
Minimizing Childhood Trauma
Depending on your situation, minimizing the stressors in your children's lives may be difficult. If you are going through a divorce or separation, it is hard to not have this stress effect your children. Certain life events, such as a death in the family or a traumatic accident, are unavoidable. The best thing you can do for your children in any of these situations is to make sure to talk to your children about the event and let them express their feelings about it however is best for them.
Other childhood stressors are more in your control. If you are in an abusive relationship or have a substance abuse disorder or mental illness, be aware that you are having a deep affect on your children. Though your children may brush these things off or pretend that they are not affecting them, they likely are. And the only person who can do something about it is you. So get out of that abusive relationship (as hard as it may be) or seek treatment for your substance abuse or mental illness. Not only will you feel better, but you increase the chances of your children having a significantly improved life.
Ways to Keep Your Children Stress-Free
Not all childhood stress is related to traumatic events. Sometimes your children may be stressed out from a problem with friends, too much homework or an overly busy schedule of school and extracurricular activities. Here are some ways to help your children minimize stressors and stay stress-free:
- Check in with your children. Be sure to always know what is going on with your children by asking about their day, their friends and their feelings. Don't assume children have nothing to say just because they aren't saying it. Sometimes they just need to be asked. Asking questions and knowing how you can help are the best ways to reduce stress in your children's lives.
- Cut back on the fun. Too many extracurricular activities (such as playing an instrument and participating in sports) can overwhelm a child. Kids need time to relax and do nothing, which can lead to more creativity and less stress.
- Promote healthy eating and exercise. For kids, as with adults, proper nutrition and regular exercise can go a long way to feeling more relaxed. Both have been proven to fight stress and boost energy.
- Create a schedule. Having a regular, reliable schedule can help a kid feel more organized. Have a family calendar up on the wall where all events are listed so that everybody in the house knows when things are going on. This allows everyone to get prepared in their own way and to not be surprised by events they didn't know about.
- Take off the pressure. Kids often feel a lot of stress because of the pressures they feel are put on them by their parents. While it's good to encourage them to do well in school, sports or life, don't make them feel like you loving them depends on how well they do. Be sure to tell them that it doesn't matter what the outcome is, as long as they are enjoying themselves.
- Learn to relax. The benefits of relaxation breathing or zoning out to music are good to learn early on in life. Figuring out what relaxes your children now can help keep them grounded for the inevitable stresses of life later on.
- Avoid caffeine and sugar. Too much sugar or caffeine can create anxiety, which can lead
While you won't be able to eliminate stress in your children's lives, there are things you can do to decrease the amount of stress your children deal with regularly. Take responsibility for your actions that are causing your children stress, and do what you can to help them learn to manage their stress.
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